Children who make decisions with intensity tend to be called “strong willed.” At the end of the day, their parents feel as if they’ve been engaged in hand-to-hand combat for hours-and the children often win! All children fall somewhere on the continuum between strong willed and unmotivated, depending on their intensity level about life.
Strong-willed kids are generally determined, highly motivated, persistent, and not easily persuaded once they’ve made up their minds. Most parents consider a strong will a negative personality trait because it often creates resistance and frustration in family life.
Four-year-old Michael wouldn’t stay in bed. Mom had to send him back several times each night. She said to us, “This is torture. Even if I yell and get angry, it doesn’t seem to faze him. Nothing I do works. It’s not fair. I work with him all day. I ought to get a little relief in the evening before I go to bed myself.”
Michael’s mom is right that her son should go to bed and not keep getting up. We gave her a plan to deal with her son’s determination. By sitting in her son’s doorway and immediately responding when he started to get out of bed, she saw some improvement. We encouraged her to remain calm but firmly put him back in bed.
The next week, she said, “The first few nights, I must have put him back into bed twenty times, but after that things started to improve. In fact, now I can stay there for just a few seconds and then leave him.” Three weeks later, she reported, “It’s going well. I keep checking, and he stays in bed. It’s like he needed me to show him I meant business. Now I can relax in the evenings, knowing Michael won’t get up.”
A strong will keeps a child moving in a certain direction in spite of obstacles. Often these children need bigger barriers or tighter limits to teach them that those boundaries are firm. On the other hand, the strong-willed child accomplishes things in life, because the roadblocks that might hold back are no match for this kid’s determination.
Joe, age eleven, found an injured cat in the neighborhood. He felt sorry for the cat and was determined to help it get well. He put the cat in the box, carried it home, and pleaded with Mom to take it to the vet. He fed the animal with an eye dropper and watched it intently for days. Eventually the cat did get well- but only because Joe didn’t give up.
Joe’s strong will was fed by his heart. He had compassion, valued life, and took on the challenge. His intensity paid off; but even if the cat had dies, Joe was doing what he believed was right.
Miriam’s ten-year-old son, Alex, is strongly determined to do well at school. When he gets an assignment due in two weeks, he starts on it right away. Mom is pleased that Alex is diligent in school and praises him for his determination. His strong will comes from a sense of responsibility to do his work. (Of course, Mom wishes her other two children had that same strength.) It’s a gift, and Alex will do well in life if he keeps it up.
Children with strong wills have the potential to become the next generation of leaders. They have their own ideas and plans. They know what they want. They’re persistent, confident, passionate, and determined to succeed at whatever they choose to do. Leaders have an agenda, look for ways to incorporate others into their plans, and have a higher need for control in life. Balanced with graciousness, leaders become a treasure because they make things happen, create organization out of chaos, and motivate people to action.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to raise a leader. These kids always have their own ways of doing things and like to tell other people (including their parents) what to do. Many parents of strong-willed children wish their kids were more compliant. Yet, in reality, it’s the strong-willed kids who are often better equipped to succeed, be creative, and face adversity.
Of course, a strong-willed child can also be defiant and rebellious. Many prisons are full of strong-willed people. The key, of course, is something deeper than the will. It’s the heart. When the heart is in the right place, it guides the will in the right direction.
It starts in the heart
Strong-willed children need a solid inner sense of direction to keep them on the right road. Those who are unmotivated need a passion to help them stay the course. Where does all this come from? It comes from the heart. So, wherever your child fits, you must start with the heart to see lasting change take place.
Helping children develop a stronger will or redirecting their already strong will is a challenge in any home. The daily work of family life poses many opportunities to make changes. Instead of just reacting to the needs of the moment, parents would do better to identify the issues of the will and use a heart based approach. Long-range solutions are always heart related. Yes, you have to set limits and hold children accountable—but as you do, keep your focus on the heart. In the end, it’s the heart change that your child needs to adequately guide the will.
Parents need to develop strong wills. It’s not an option. Many strong-willed kids have weak-willed parents, allowing the children to become more selfish and demanding. Unmotivated children also need strong-willed parents to challenge them to succeed. Kids need parents who are willing to take a stand for what’s right, demonstrate leadership, and set firm limits. They need moms and dads who will show them the path and encourage them to stay on it.
Unfortunately, some parents translate this mandate into a justification to rain anger down on their kids. Children need firmness, but don’t think firmness is the same as harshness. Many parents confuse the two, but harshness damages relationships. Firmness sets down a boundary and lets children know that is it’s crossed, a consequence will follow. Firmness holds a child accountable to take the next steps. Don’t use your anger to overpower a strong will or put a fire under an unmotivated child. It may work for a while, but in the end you’ll lose closeness.
Setting limits for the strong-willed child
Sometimes a major crisis causes a change of heart, but more often it happens over time through interactions in everyday life.
A strong-willed child may object every time you give an instruction, and you may find it quite tempting to give in. After all, eventually the child discovers some logic that makes sense. Your child’s lawyer-type approach has backed you into a corner, and you begin to feel like it would be wrong to stay the course. The child has successfully talked you into a compromise.
Now, it’s important for parents to listen to their children. In fact, compromise can be a good thing in many situations. Asking children to propose an alternative solution helps them develop the ability to appeal graciously to authority. Parents should look for ways to incorporate children into the decision-making process.
But some parents have erred too far in that direction, and their children can’t seem to follow any instructions without dialogue. These parents feel as if they have to talk their kids into obeying, and children develop the belief that if they don’t agree, they don’t have to obey. Conversation can be good in some circumstances, but sometimes strong-willed children need to just stop resisting and do it your way. Children who argue continually tend to value their own agenda above relationship. Their desires and getting what they want become the most important things, revealing a heart-deep selfishness that needs to change.
If you find yourself in a pattern of never-ending spiral conversations, and your child is becoming more demanding and self-willed in this area, you need to develop a new routine. In a calm moment, have a sit-down meeting with your child and say, “We seem to have a problem when I give you an instruction you don’t like. I appreciate your persistence and many of your ideas are good, but when I tell you to do something, that’s not the time to argue. This is a heart problem. So from now on, when I ask you to do something, I want you to obey first; then we’ll talk about it later. I want to see if you can accept my instructions and cooperate without arguing.”
Your job is to teach your child where the limits exist in relationships. As an adult, you know when challenging someone crosses the line of insubordination, but strong-willed children often lack the sensitivity to pick up on basic social cues that tell them when they’ve exceeded appropriate relational boundaries. Frustratingly, they often don’t even take notice of the subtle correction cues you give, so you feel like you have to get angry or become blunt, cold, rude, or even mean to get the message across.
You don’t have to be mean, but it is often necessary to exaggerate the cues. When a persistent child launches into his arguments, you might typically give a look that communicates, “I’ve had enough.” A sensitive person would catch that look and stop talking or change the subject. But your child doesn’t get it, so you have to make the cues more obvious. Of course, some children see the cues but decide to ignore them. You can raise the awareness level and help children realize that you’re not going to follow the same old script. You might say, “Son, I’ve given you my answer, and I want to be done with this conversation, but I feel like you’re a big truck, and I’m being run over. It’s time for you to stop trying to change my mind. We’re done.”
Many parents try to break the will. In fact you’ve probably heard the parenting proverb that goes like this : Break the will without breaking the spirit. This will only be productive if you have a heart-based approach to discipline, because stopping a child’s determination forces her to reevaluate her values and priorities . You create a wall to block the child’s will—but, at the same time, it’s critical to feed the heart with new information and experiences. In this way, the walls you set up redirect a child’s heart rather than just create a hurdle for her to overcome.
If behavior modification is the focus, however, determined children learn to get what they want. They discover ways to go through, over, around, or under your wall. It just takes time and a little creativity. The will is a good thing when it is directed by a wise heart, but a foolish heart creates a lot of pain for both the child and parents.
Dr. Scott Turansky is an author and speaker known for his heartfelt parenting approach. He offers moms practical, real-life advice for many of parenting’s greatest challenges and is the founder of the National Center for Biblical Parenting.